After the initial burst of excitement had subsided I contacted Castle Communications in London and asked the personable girl at the other end of the phone where these rarities had emerged from. She said the recordings were made in 1973 in Nashville, Tennessee, and sent me a copy of the list of tracks from which Castle selected the ones that eventually made up Sun Mountain.
There were 31 songs in all, and all except four have now been released in some form or other. The four outstanding tracks are: Undecided, One Ticket To L.A., Mr. Lyle and Any Way You Want It. I've been informed that some copies of Sun Mountain inadvertantly list the latter song as being included (it's not), but that could be nothing more than a tantalizing records company plot to drive some of the more rabid among us to drink!
Undecided is listed as Demo DL, which indicates that the vocalist was the "other lead singer in the band at that time" (Keith Thomas); Mr. Lyle is attributed to both Walter and Donald's vocals and One Ticket To L.A. and Any Way You Want It are merely credited as piano and voice.
Only four songs on Sun Mountain are actually comprised of anything more than very basic piano and voice demos, and the introductory number is a slightly somber-sounding version of Berry Town. The song was vastly improved when it appeared on Pretzel Logic; it was faster, livelier and altogether more optimistic.
The title track itself is a marvelous early example of Becker and Fagen's fledgling songwriting talents, but the opening is marred by the appalling recording quality. It sounds like the kind of ballad that David Palmer might have been called on to sing in his brief spell with Steely Dan. Or perhaps the kind of gentle song they might later write for ex-Jay and the Americans sideman Thomas Jefferson Kaye.
An acoustic guitar introduces Ida Lee, an unlikely choice of name for a sexy, party-loving girl, but she's the girl of their dreams, all right. The dry humor is there, too -- in the same verse they succeed with a couple quick-fire puns: "Put out the candle/blew out the cat" Fagen sings, and then almost immediately, "We're all on the chaise lounge." This must have been some party!
Sun Mountain contains two more tracks than does Berry Town, those being The Caves of Altramira (sic) and A Horse in Town. On the former, we are treated to a jazzed-up piano intro, to an extra verse from the version which later surfaced on The Royal Scam and to Walter duetting with Donald on parts of the chorus. The expressive piano playing counterpoints Donald's flat monotone.
In a 1976 interview with Mick Houghton, replying to his suggestion that Everyone's Gone To The Movies might be an old song, Walter said, "Actually, The Caves of Altamira on the new record is probably older than Movies. Occasionally we find one and rewrite it."
Houghton: "That would seem a good example of an old song which must have been considered too far out at the time. Were you less disciplined writers then?"
Fagen: "I would say so. Some of the songs were probably more ambitious and therefore more likely to be failures in actual execution."
Becker: "In the case of Altamira, I don't think it was any less disciplined a piece of writing than the other songs on Scam, written within the past year. It was more complicated rhythmically in its original form."
A Horse In Town, the first track on side two, features Keith Thomas on lead vocal. The arrangement here suggests to me that it wouldn't have been misplaced on You Gotta Walk It Like You Talk It. Close listening reveals the recording level being steadily increased as the song gets under way. It's by far one of the most complete tracks on the album, with up-front guitar, bass, drums and even background vocals.
For some reason the next track, The Roaring of the Lamb, is only one minute long, consisting of just one of the later verses and a chorus. On Berry Town the song appears complete, but that doesn't make interpreting these very weird lyrics any easier -- for me at least! What is this all about?
Parker's Band is Donald and Walter's tribute to Bird, including token percussion, awkward harmony vocals from Walter and a reference to Parker's recuperation from illness at a hospital in California: "Relaxin' at Camarillo."
While at first it seems like just another lost love song, Oh Wow It's You, upon closer inspection, has evil implications lurking beneath its apparently innocent exterior. I think this is another good example of a favorite technique of theirs whereby they disguise the underlying meaning of the words with a harmless-sounding melody.
Winding up Sun Mountain we find Take It Out On Me, a song frequently mentioned by Donald and Walter in interviews when asked about pre-Steely Dan material. The narrator of this song appears to be imploring his love to take her pleasure at his expense -- inflicting upon him the most painful and pleasurable sado-masochism she can imagine. In the final lines of the song he is attempting to banish her feelings of guilt and persuade her that, as long as they are both willing partners in this, it's really nothing to be ashamed of.
Sun Mountain is, in my opinion, superior to Berry Town (although it's the latter that's been released on compact disc) because, not only does it have the two extra tracks but the packaging is so much better. It displays a much-used Neil Preston shot of Becker and Fagen on the cover: they loom ominously over the photographer, replete with the omnipresent sunglasses, looking like two homogenized, hirsute hard cases as the sun sets on some Hollywood hillside.
By comparison, the cover of Berry Town is utterly unimaginative, with art work that looks like it was done by a ten-year-old (no offense intended to any younger readers we may have!). Presumably when Bellaphon obtained these tapes they were so eager to capitalize that they gave no thought whatsoever to the packaging, preferring instead to just rush-release-and-be-damned. (I think similar comments may be applied to the CD releases of Old Regime (basically The Early Years on CD in all but name) and MCA's A Decade of Steely Dan, the cover of which displays all the style of a crumpled paper bag! At least MCA had the decency to list the musicians on the earliest tracks, which heretofore had remained for the listener to puzzle over).
I think it's likely that Donald and Walter are squirming with embarrassment, not to say wriggling with resentment, if they are aware of the availability of this old material. This raises an interesting point: Where does artistic control begin and end and, above all, who exercises that control twenty years on? Well, that's another argument again...